Hayley Sabella on Courage, Faith, and Flying the Nest

Photo by Sasha Pedro

For Plymouth, Massachusetts singer/songwriter Hayley Sabella, nature is a key source of relief and self-care, especially in an ongoing pandemic. “I’m lucky to live in an area where I can have access to the woods nearby, you know, that aren’t crowded,” she says. “That’s where I go to get my mood back.”

The catharsis of the outdoors permeates her recently-released third album, Flew the Nest. It winds its way through scenes of summer storms on the shores of the beach town where she grew up, through the ever-present waters of Cape Cod, and in humid indie pop production that builds and billows with the tension and release of Sabella’s writing.

The album’s emotional peaks come from her complex relationship with that setting–its presence through her coming-of-age and the loss of her childhood innocence–and the release cycle has been just as fraught. First, COVID-19 forced Sabella to cancel shows. Since then, she’s been performing via livestream and hosting interviews with album collaborators on her Instagram.

Earth-shaking tragedy struck again four days before the release with the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which has sparked weeks of protests for racial justice. In response, Sabella donated first week sales of Flew the Nest to Black Visions Collective and also played a digital show for Philadelphia Folksong Society to benefit the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.

Before the release and the surge of nationwide action, Sabella spoke to The All Scene Eye to trace the symbolism in her lyrics and share the advice she received as a teenager that continues to shape her outlook on courage.

You started doing this Instagram Live show called Wheel Life with Hayley Sabella–how did you come up with that concept and set that spinning?

Literally spinning! It’s a wheel. [laughs] We were just thinking of ways to engage with fans and give the backstory of the record, so we came up with the idea of doing interviews, but I wanted a structure or a format for it, so I was brainstorming ways to make it more like a game. I came up with the idea of having an interview wheel, so basically, I made this homemade wheel out of cardboard and watercolors. I spin it, it lands on a question, and that’s what we use to guide the interview, which has been fun.

How did you brainstorm the questions for the wheel?

I have some roommates, my manager, and a couple friends, and we just made a google doc. I actually used to interview people when I was a teenager–when I was a senior in high school, I used to have this interview book, and I’d ask these deep, probing questions. [laughs] I’d do teachers, I’d do friends, I’d do siblings, just anybody who would be willing to take the time to share. I feel like it was rooted in that concept, so I had some questions up my sleeve too.

What came of that project, of that interview book?

Nothing–I mean, it was just a personal thing. I was at a time where I was trying to figure out who I was, so I was just trying to figure out who everybody else was and see if I could take any tips. There are still things that I remember and refer back to from that–pearls of wisdom that I still value. I was kind of an intense, brooding teenager, hence the songwriting career.

But a social one!

But a social one, for sure. I like using songs to connect with people, but interview is a more direct exchange, so I’ve always enjoyed that, kind of curious about what makes other people tick.

Is there a single piece of wisdom that you picked up during that time that has been the most influential on your outlook now?

Yeah, actually. I interviewed a teacher, and one of the questions was, “What’s the most attractive quality in a person?” And what he said was “courage.” Not the kind of courage that you typically think of, of running into a burning building to save people, but more like the courage to be emotionally vulnerable and open. That definitely stuck with me.

Your last album Forgive the Birds came out in April of 2018. From there, when did you first start work on the songs that became Flew the Nest?

I’m trying to think back. Some of the songs–“Cape Cod,” for example, was on Forgive the Birds, and Forgive the Birds took me a while. It was sort of trying to discover my voice, so I took my time with that record because I felt like I really wanted to establish my sound. After having recorded one full-length, now that I knew what the process was like, I wanted to make really intentional choices with it, so it was a real careful labor of love. 

Songs like “Cape Cod” came of it. I started playing that song live, and I was trying to think of ways to invite the band into the song, so this fuller version of the song emerged from our live recordings that I enjoyed so much. We wanted to give it a new life on Flew the Nest, so I’ve been excited to share that with people. It’s nice to have something familiar but sort of new at the same time.

Because it took me so long, I actually wrote some of the songs before I released Forgive the Birds. Once I finished the recordings, it was like, “Okay, now what?” [laughs] You want to put an album out into the world with care. I’ve learned that you can’t just share it with your Facebook friends and have that be it. I wanted to give it more of a chance, so that was the first time I worked with press, and all of that takes time to figure out what relationships you want to build and who you want on your team. Because of that, we put Forgive the Birds out in April of 2018, like you said, and by that summer, I was already recording the songs for Flew the Nest because they were coming out of that time, and I felt like I had a team. I had a little bit of a structure, so I just wanted to put out new music.

You mentioned with “Cape Cod” there’s that familiar-but-different dynamic, and you follow Forgive the Birds with another bird-related title in Flew the Nest. Can you tell me more about that continuity?

A lot of that is hard for me to explain. I feel that it’s there, but it’s hard for me to put into words. The title is a really good example of that. I feel like Forgive the Birds was like laying down foundation, and then Flew the Nest was moving with that–like, now that that foundation has been built, functioning within that. It’s more like taking the leap now that it’s there, and part of that is giving myself more permission to explore different sounds. Forgive the Birds was more of a traditional folk sound–still not super traditional, but more following those structures, and I think Flew the Nest, we wanted to break out of those molds a little more and experiment with a fresh palette, heading more towards indie pop.

The title track “Flew the Nest” is a song that you wrote in the house that you grew up in. What’s the story of that song, and when did that happen?

I remember it really clearly. It was September of 2017, I think–it could have even been 2016–and I was moving out of my parents’ house, so I had boxes everywhere. I was moving into a house with a friend of mine, and I think part of that is the foundations theme that we were talking about. Being in the house where you grew up with a lot of those things that formed you, but then transitioning into adulthood, owning your own decisions, and deciding what you want to take and what you want to leave from your upbringing. But also, just looking back nostalgically, paying homage to everything that’s formed you. 

There’s other emotionally intense stuff that was going on personally that I think drew the song out. It was sort of a processing. Something I’ve been asked to do a lot is sing at funerals [laughs] and I think I was singing at a funeral the next day, so it was all of that combined into a song. I didn’t really understand what it meant as it came out of me, but it continues to evolve, and I think it means different things to different people as they listen, which I like.

There’s this little audio sample that plays at the end of that track, of a dialog. Where did that sound originate?

We have some dear friends who took home videos like crazy. Every single birthday party, everything was always cataloged, and my family didn’t really do that very much, but because we spent so much time with these friends, I–they gave me access to their google doc that has all of their footage that was digitized, and they allowed me to use the sample from some of the home videos.

We actually used that for the “Flew the Nest” music video. We’ve got a bunch of home video clips to tie in those themes of nostalgia, sort of like flashbacks, and being in the place where you grew up. For the video, we went to my parents’ house. They live right by the beach, and when I go down to the beach, I don’t see just the sand and the water and the rocks. I see memories. Like, “This is the rock that I used to climb to have a picnic with my friends, or, “This is where I used to throw bonfires,” or, “That’s the first place I got drunk.” [laughs] All that stuff.

It’s a video that operates on a lot of different levels. There’s performance footage, there’s acted segments, and then also there’s this home video that you referred to. How did the concept for that video develop?

I had a call with Luke Zvara, the director, and my manager, Kristina, and we had scheduled this meeting to talk visuals for it. You know, it was a morning call–I sat down, I had my coffee, and I was like, “Okay, what are we going to do?” And all these ideas came to me, including having my brother Christian, who’s the actor in it, and having it at my parents’ house, and having footage of the water, and then, since we have the home video clip in the audio, I thought we could probably use the home video footage as well. 

It was Luke’s idea to find different ways to incorporate that–to not only have the actual footage featured, but to also have a projector playing on the band and I as we perform the song, so it adds to the layers of it. He had the idea of–the shot list of ways to incorporate my brother and that last line in the song, of writing a letter and burning it. That was such a powerful image, and so easily represented visually, so we were able to incorporate that into the acting as well.

What was it like working with your brother on that?

It was very easy. I had this sense that he’d be perfect for it, and he was. He’s got good brooding eyebrows. [laughs] And I felt like he would, listening to the song, understand at a deep level what it means because we had the same upbringing, and sure enough. The most challenging part is that he doesn’t have his license, but he had to drive for this video. [laughs] He has a driver’s permit, and luckily, it was the wintertime in kind of a beach neighborhood, so it’s pretty empty. He had to both act and have a driving lesson at the same time.

“Act like you know how to drive.” [laughs]

Yeah, I think he did pretty well. [laughs] He lives in the city, so he has no reason to own a car or drive, you know?

Nature is a prevalent topic throughout songs that you’ve written in the past, but what really struck me was the through-line of water on this record. The very first lyric is “My love leads me to the water’s edge / he knows the current like a friend.” From there, it’s present in every other song as well. How did that motif become so prevalent in this batch of songs?

Water is a really strong symbol for emotion for me. I think it’s pretty common–I’ve seen that theme in a lot of places. Even in astrology, if you’re a water sign, you’re supposed to be really emotional, you know? I have a dear friend who wrote a poem several years ago where he used water as–like, when you carry water for other people, it’s like the emotional burdens that you carry for loved ones when they don’t have the awareness to carry it themselves. I thought that was really powerful, and I think I internalized that at a pretty deep level.

With songwriting, a lot of times I don’t really understand things until in retrospect. I think the symbols can mean more of a literal thing when you’re writing, and then you look back and you realize the symbols are more unified than you could have planned. It’s cool to reveal that there’s sort of a language that I have for things without knowing it.

“July Rain” is the strongest example to me of water being an example of catharsis. You know, like when you’re waiting for a thunderstorm, the pressure is building in the atmosphere, and it’s hot, and it’s humid, and then the cold front comes in, the pressure drops, and rain falls, and a lot of times, it’s big, big droplets with thunder and electricity–I’ve always loved big summer storms like that. Especially being near the ocean, watching a storm come in off the water, seeing the clouds collide, it just feels like this big release and relief from, a lot of times, a pretty oppressive humidity and heat. The rain feels like it’s cleaning the air as it falls, and I’ve always felt better the same way that you do after you have a good cry. You get those happy chemicals back into your system just by letting the water go.

When you talk about this poem that inspired you and that image of carrying water in a vessel, the song that I think of is “Sorrow:Joy,” where you illustrate that–quantity of emotion and catharsis irrespective of what it is.

“Still water with an endless bottom / dive in, show ’em if you got ’em.” Yeah, I didn’t realize how strong that theme is throughout the songs. Thank you for pointing that out. [laughs] Also, going back to that idea of being vulnerable and courageous and allowing that relief to happen, because there’s a lot of stigma around strong emotion, and a lot of fear that it might be too much for people to handle, or a desire to hide. That’s something I think we all have to sort of dance with, of making space to constructively release, especially when you are a deep feeler. I know when I was a teenager, I never let anybody see me cry. I’d put sunglasses on and go for a walk, or cry in the shower, or whatever. There’s a lot of feeling like you’re weak if you cry, and the older I get, the more I find that that’s just the opposite of being true–that being brave enough to let people witness emotion is only giving them permission to do it themselves.

There’s one more place on this record where the imagery was really striking to me, and that was “Imaginary Sunshine.” There’s a lyric about–again, the ocean, and “baptism, only backwards.” Where did that visual come from for you?

Well, the setting really does go back to the beach at my parents’ house. I grew up as a missionary kid–we lived in Nicaragua for five years when I was a kid, and coming of age, especially as a woman in the evangelical world, I’m able to see now the added pressure that there is for young adults in that setting. You’re already going through so many changes, and to have all of these rules and stigmas and expectations added on top of that makes it really confusing. The idea of “baptism, only backwards” came from–you know, you reach an age where you feel like you lose your innocence. I think all of that runs really deep.

That’s a song, honestly, I’m a little bit scared to share. [laughs] I feel like it’s pretty intense, but I’m realizing now that a lot of times, if you’re brought up with a particular faith and you experience doubt, you’re faced with this choice to either abandon your community–your Sundays, and so much of what makes you who you are–or you can attempt to silence this doubt, but meanwhile, you abandon yourself. You lose the ability to be authentic. When you become afraid to face what you truly believe or how you truly feel, I think that that leads to all kinds of issues. It spirals out from there. So “Imaginary Sunshine,” it’s an intense one, but it was very cathartic to write, especially because I was processing something that happened 10 to 15 years earlier than when I wrote it, being able to see it as an adult and have compassion for my younger self.

It goes back to this concept of courage that we’ve been talking about. Have you played that song live at all?

I think I’ve only played it once, live. It was just after I wrote it, and it was in a songwriters’ round. I find that environment a good one to try new material out because afterwards, somebody else takes over, and you can decompress for a second. [laughs]

But I am excited to share it. I love the way that that song came out, production-wise. It really surprised me, the way that it opens up at the end and everything. It was a lot of fun to create that sort of sonic landscape, and it’s liberating to write something that feels true even if it might be controversial, or even just–I know a lot of my family is still devout evangelical, and I don’t know if they would read into it exactly like I intended it. It could just even make them feel sad, you know? I know so well where that song came from, but I really don’t know how it comes across.

“July Rain” is a track that you recorded a Tiny Desk submission for. You collaborated with other musicians from a distance, and it was actually featured on NPR. How did that session get organized?

Some things are hard to pull together, especially when it involves collaboration, but that one was easy, and I’m so grateful for that. I had just moved in with an old friend, and he does film for work, so he was able to help me with that video, which was huge. He had the nicer cameras and the Final Cut–he was able to help me on a technical level, and we live together, so it was easy for that portion of the collaboration to go smoothly.

That version of the song with Kaiti Jones and Alisa Amador started at Folk Alliance this year; we all roomed together and sang on each other’s sets. They sang harmonies with me live quite a bit, and it made me feel like I don’t want to sing the song without them. [laughs] I think the harmonies are really powerful, and then, naturally, I pulled in Danny [Hoshino]. He plays with me a lot. He does all the pedal steel on the record and a lot of the lead guitar as well, and then Daniel [Radin], who played bass, is the producer. He produced both Forgive the Birds and Flew the Nest. Daniel is actually producing all of their records [laughs] so we have this little community, and, I think, a lot of consensus on what sounds good, so it makes it sort of effortless to give direction because we all have a similar aesthetic.

I’m just so grateful that that song came together and that I had the technological support from my roommate. I submitted it, like, the night before the contest ended. [laughs] The fact that it was highlighted on All Songs Considered–there’s not a lot of ways to get that validation, since I can’t play shows live. It was really validating to have that mentioned. It meant a lot to me.

Daniel Radin produced the record, and since you had that foundation of working together on Forgive the Birds, what was the dynamic between the two of you?

Oh, so easy. [laughs] He’s a dear friend. We listened to a lot of the same bands growing up, too, and just have a lot of agreement on what sounds good. There’s this flow where a lot of times, I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, but I don’t have the exact technical language to describe it, and he’s able to intuit the changes that I’d like to make. I have a lot of trust for his ear, so it’s this really easy dynamic that I’m so grateful for.

When we started recording for Flew the Nest, we didn’t even do it to release. We just did it for fun, and then looking back after a few months, realized that, especially the songs “Ordinary” and “It Was There,” we decided to take some risks. It was more in the spirit of play and curiosity than it was in, like, “We need to make a beautiful record.” But there’s so much value to holding something a little lightly, I think. Almost always, when I let go a little bit, I enjoy the result so much more.

What were some of those riskier elements?

Well, for example, “It Was There” is a song that I wrote as part of a songwriters challenge, where we all challenged each other to write a song a day for the month of August in 2018. “It Was There” was something I wouldn’t have been able to write if I didn’t feel like I was starting at that point. It was late in the process where I was writing every single day, so I gave myself permission to write something almost like it was from a different voice, in a sense, but it was fun. I thought, “This is a poppier format for me, but let’s just see what happens with it.”

Actually, “Sorrow:Joy” came from that songwriting experiment as well, but “Ordinary” was something that we had recorded an earlier version of that was more similar to stuff on Forgive the Birds. We decided to begin it with that synth part, use big drums and a wall of sound that comes in, and just go as big as we wanted, production-wise. That was an act of letting go, in a lot of ways.

How does it feel to be at the end of the album process in this very strange time?

It’s a little overwhelming because–for example, I was supposed to have my release show at a local venue. I would’ve been able to have my band, and it would have been inherently sort of special because I only book this venue when I have a release show. I would have had the full band, and we would have gone through lengths to translate the songs to a live format. I still would like to do that.

One of the upsides of all of this is I’ve had to up my ante technologically. I finally have recording software. I finally have a decent microphone. My partner and I just invested in a bunch of guitar pedals and stuff that I would have loved to explore, but when your live format is working, it’s hard to get the motivation to tweak it. It’s sort of forcing me to expand. 

I think a lot of my frustration with recording software and pedals and stuff is, my taste exceeds my ability to translate it well [laughs] because I’m so used to having a team–somebody who’s able to get me to the point where I need to be to perform rather than having to figure out how to get myself there. So it’s really good for me. It’s forcing me to build and become more self-sufficient, and also be able to sing on other people’s records. Being able to add harmonies to someone’s song remotely is such a valuable thing, so there’s the upside. 

In terms of how I’m feeling, I suppose I just have a lot of love for these songs. I really believe in them and I think that if people resonate, I’d love for them to have the opportunity to actually hear, so there’s a little bit of just wanting the songs to get to people’s ears and hearts. Because it’s the result of a lot of healing that I’ve done, and I think music can be powerful in opening that healing for other people too.


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